Mention the name Claire Danes and you might think of the angst-ridden but slyly smart and wise-beyond-her-years teen from the short-lived television series My So-Called Life.
That's about to change.
The 17-year-old actress is taking a major leap into the Big Time with the plum role of Juliet in Baz Luhrmann's sizzlingly updated William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
She also anchors the film To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, a melodrama about a man grieving over the death of his wife. Danes plays daughter Rachel, a wise teen at the emotional center of the dysfunctional family.
"I'm starting to feel like my wings are spreading," Danes says. "I feel likean idiot for saying that, but it's true. I look back a year ago and I'm like, 'God, I was such a baby.' But I know it'll be like that in another year, too."
No doubt she'll look back at playing Juliet as a major turning point. Juliet is her deepest and darkest role, expected to give her a long shot at an Oscar and solid footing on Hollywood's A list.
To play Juliet, Danes tapped into her considerable intellect, then, unexpectedly, into her heart.
"When I started Romeo and Juliet, I was just starting to break up with my boyfriend, and I would cry periodically during rehearsals," she said about ending her relationship with musician Andrew Dorff, brother of actor Stephen Dorff. "It's just so hard to be talking about love when you're supposed to be falling out of it."
Strong stuff for one so young. But while her speech is still laced with "like" and "you know" and she still wears a uniform to school -- Le Lycee de Francais in Los Angeles -- Danes is most definitely not the girl next door.
To begin with, Danes grew up in a loft in New York's arty Soho district. At 10, she decided she wanted to act, and her artist parents enrolled her in the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute.
She was only 14 when she won the role of Angela in My So-Called Life. Critics and a loyal core of viewers adored it, but the show lasted only one season although it was later rebroadcast on MTV. Small-but-sweet roles in Little Women and Home for the Holidays followed, giving Danes a reputation as a major talent with a maturity beyond her years.
That maturity serves her well in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday. As Rachel, Danes plays a sad but enlightened teen-ager, far more solid than the muddled adults around her.
In fact, Danes was particularly drawn to Rachel's normalcy.
"She's actually the most normal person I've played, ever," Danes says. "Basically, she's just a teen-ager living in 1996, she goes to the mall and goes to see movies and she's just starting to see boys."
That could also describe Danes herself. Although she may pack her schedule with exotic appointments on movie sets and posh hotels, her hobbies are extraordinarily ordinary.
She loves (LOVES!) going to the movies. (Fargo and Trainspotting are her current favorite films.) She also likes to draw and sketch, although she frets that her skills may not as good as they once were. And like most of us, she likes to read but laments about her lack of time to crack a book.
One thing she did find time to read was Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, deconstructing the play with a tutor while the rest of her English class read Richard Wright's "Native Son."
Danes had scored the part on a recommendation from Jodie Foster and an emphatic nod from leading man Leonardo DiCaprio, who was cast first.
Months after production, Danes looks back on the film and DiCaprio with a mix of awe, admiration and shock.
"It was so surreal, the whole experience," she said. "For four months, we were in Mexico City, which is really kind of a magical place, very passionate and vibrant. There are so many colors surrounding you when you're there."
There's also a fair amount of bacteria, and virtually the whole cast and crew spent time nursing Montezuma's revenge. The illness, the isolation and the intensity of the work seemed to fuel some fires, Danes said.
"I was really the only girl there," she said, not unhappily. "And by the end, when we were shooting the gang stuff, there were aaaalllll these boys in this Wild West kind of place and it got a little out of control."
Invariably, DiCaprio led the pack. He came to "Romeo and Juliet" widely acclaimed, but with a bad-boy reputation so different from Danes', many wondered whether they'd click.
They do; their scenes together are the best in the brash, bold film.
"I think we understand each other," Danes said. "I mean, we're two different chemicals, and when you put us together in the same container, things start happening. Good and bad things."
For the record, off-screen romance wasn't one of those things. But with theater's most romantic role on her resume and her first major love under her belt, what does Danes, who can quicken the hearts of men a decade older, have to say about love?
"Oh," she breathes. "God did good when he created boys."
The answer reveals Danes' delicate place in the world: somewhere between girl and woman, young enough to balance a dozen crushes and old enough to suffer heartbreak.
This is Claire Danes' life. And there's nothing so-called about it.
© 1996, AP
© 1996, AP